Fast friends, adventures and lifelong memories

It's not unusual for campers to have their doubts when they first dip into the chilly creek here at this sprawling camp in the mountains of McDowell County, about two hours northwest of Charlotte.

The key, says camper Darryl Alford, 14, is sticking with it. And the payoff is fun: Staying in means you get to scramble on the natural rock slide, for a trip back down into the water.

"It's not that scary," says Darryl, who with his sister, Angel, 11, enjoyed the rock slide and other adventures this week at Camp Grier, on 643 acres bordering the Pisgah National Forest. "The water was cold until you stayed in for a while."

Enjoying that kind of moment outdoors with nature is a big part of the camp - and also a focus of The Summer Camp Fund. The fundraising effort by The Charlotte Observer and the nonprofit Partners in Out-of-School Time helped send the Alford siblings and eight other children to Camp Grier this summer.

The fund provides scholarships for children from low-income families throughout the Charlotte region to attend outdoor camps, where they can enjoy safe, supervised time.

At the rock slide, campers quickly progressed to underwater dips, intentional splashing of each other, shrieking, and singing the Camp Grier song by a small waterfall - a camp rite of passage that automatically makes them members of the "polar bear club."

The miles of trails, the lake for canoeing, and cabins with tin roofs and screen sides are all part of the adventure.

But the most memorable part about camp, Angel says, is how easy it is to make friends.

Her buddies held her hand as the group made the steep mile-long hike back down from the Fire Tower, a place where the campers go for Bible study and reflection at the Presbyterian camp. Darryl especially liked looking out over the mountains.

Returning campers aspire to age up into the cabins with no electricity, a privilege reserved for the older children. They also hike about a mile into the forest for an overnight stay, complete with tents and dinner cooked on an open fire.

Each morning campers head out with backpacks carrying the day's clothes, toiletries and towels, making it easier to stay closer to the activities.

The middle-school-age campers get a Thursday night dance finale, with line-dancing and '80s music. It all leads up to the saddest part of the week - Friday afternoon, when campers depart.

The Alford siblings and their camp friends are already having the same thought:

See you next year.